I am having a latte at a French pastry place, with a tasty pain de chocolate, on the main tourist street of San Cristobal de las Casas. Locals are pitching jewelry, herbs, prints, chocolate, amber and jade to marks like me sitting outside. An indigenous woman has a stack of locally made, handwoven blankets,. (Or are they manufactured in China, shipped here and sold as the real thing?) Their pitches are mild and respectful. Now a guy is selling cubre bocas (face masks) to keep us healthy.
San Cristobal is a town of 180,000 people whose economy is driven by tourism and agriculture. It was founded in 1528 by the Spanish in the central highlands of Chiapas, in South Central Mexico. The town has a gridded layout typical of colonial settlements, with single and two story buildings on very narrow streets and is surrounded by high oak and pine covered hills.
The town is at 2,200 Meters (7,200 Feet) and cool – my bed at the hostel has heavy blankets, something I’ve not needed thus far in the country. The drive here from Oaxaca, with the highway weaving its way up the escarpment and views down towards the Pacific coast, was magnificent.
Chiapas has been the nexus of left wing political protests – the sense is that the poorer South, mostly indigenous, gets a raw deal from the federal government. The Zapatistas (EZLN for the initials in Spanish), a socialist libertarian organization, went pubic with their demands for change in the early ’90s and conducted a sporadic campaign of violence. Their name is taken from Emiliano Zapata who drove the Mexican revolution in the South and focused on the rights of the agrarian poor. You may remember a fellow being interviewed with what looked like a bag over his head (To my eye it looked like a badly made Halloween costume) named “Sub Comandante Marcos”. Since then, the EZLN has mostly been engaged in civil resistance – strikes, roadblocks and the like. As you would expect, the group aligns itself with anti globalization and environmental movements, seeking a return to the past. Were it that simple.
Chiapas has had a long history of maltreatment of indigenous folks, which has resulted in uprisings, including the “Caste War” or “Chamula Rebellion” from 1867 to1870 and the “Pajarito War” in 1911. And Mexico, like other countries, has favored those with lighter colored skin; Criollos were those who could claim pure Spanish lineage and they ended up running things. Sadly, you do not see anyone with darker skin or indigenous features in advertising or on television (e.g. in Telenovelas), and most senior politicians and businesspeople are similarly pale.
I take a long, meandering walk around the downtown, away from the tourist area where things are a little quieter and you can see life go on. A cluster of teenage girls taking posed fashion photos of themselves. A fellow with a bicycle setup selling what look like jicama carved into the shape of paletas (popsicles), with a variety of other worldly colored sweetened powders to roll them in. A fellow selling roasted corn and sweet potatoes, cooked on braziers made of galvanized wash tubs.
A truck drives by selling filtered water with a loudspeaker strapped to it’s roof, playing a tinkly version of “Raindrops are falling on my head”. Thank you Hal David and Burt Bacarach. An older fellow shuffles along using a shiny metal cane; the stains on his t shirt nicely highlighting his sizable belly. Bas relief for the body.
A tortilleria with its machine squeaking and grinding, is doing a steady business in fresh corn tortillas – a Kilo (2.2 lbs) costs about 20 pesos ($1) – some tortillerias provide salt, lime and chile for you to taste a fresh warm tortilla from the stack you purchase.
The filtered water truck and the mechanized tortilleria get me thinking about technology and how it moves – seeps really – from more developed economies to emerging markets. I love seeing how technology is absorbed – from a vulcanadora fixing a tire with a hammer, a hand pump and some patches, to the counter guy at the Oxxo ringing in my purchase in a POS that is undoubtedly networked nationally and manages the inventory of the brand’s 13,000 stores. And how the much maligned internal combustion engine has eliminated back breaking labor for millions of poor people around the world.
Much has been written on technology transfer and its effect – often negative – on developing economies. The amount of effort required to enable this transfer, through developing infrastructure, education, governance, rule of law and trade relationships, is enormous. In developed economies we take much of this for granted as it is just available, like the air we breathe. And, we forget how much things have changed in our own society: In my first year of college I used log tables, a slide rule and a calculator that could only do simple mathematical operations. Years later, in my first finance job out of business school, we used green screen computers and Fedex; fax machines were state of the art. Email and the internet wouldn’t come for another 10 years.
We grouse about the effect of technology on our lives but the incremental changes it triggers are powerful. I no longer take a guidebook when traveling – Google maps and internet searches are much more efficient. In fact, they free me to discover a place on my own terms and at my own pace.
Of course we need to managed our relationship with technology: studies recently leaked from Facebook indicate that a material percentage of people surveyed say that using the social media platform had become addictive and teen women experience significant problems in how they think of their bodies because of Instagram. And friends with school age children tell us this past year of isolation and a lot of screen time has been really hard on some of their young ones.
I found parking a block from the hostel, which is bright and cheery and run by a young Mexican returnee from Phoenix. His English is really good but readily speaks Spanish with me, after I insist we do so.
This morning in the kitchen I have a long conversation with a Brazilian lady, a French woman and a Colombian fellow (the latter are a couple) in Spanish, in which I just manage to hold my own. The couple are heading to Guatemala to renew their visas and have been traveling here for several months. He runs a hostel in the mountains of Colombia whose business collapsed during Covid; she is from the French alps and spent a year in Chicoutimi Quebec. She and I try to explain what a Canadian winter is like to the Brazilian but it is outside the realm of her imagination. How do you describe the taste of a mango to someone who had never tasted fruit?
The Brazilian is making herself a couple of days worth of meals and while she cooks, tells me about her work in Brasilia at a digital library for public health professionals and her travels. She hopes to go to India which I describe as both awesome and shocking, often at the same time.
As I write this later in the day, an Argentinian (Their Spanish sounds like it is being spoken by an Italian) next to me on a couch is having a long and involved conversation with a woman about what sounds like business and life plans. I mean, this conversation is going on and on. And on and on and on. Interesting how we do that – travel several thousand miles away and have a conversation that we could have, and probably should have, face to face.
I hear an American in an adjacent room explaining in great detail to a Spanish speaker why, although he has studied Spanish, he doesn’t actually speak it, doing so in that fully revealing but wholly impersonal way that only my countrymen can. I can tell that the Spanish speaker is puzzled; for her, learning a second (and third) language is something done out of necessity and for opportunity; it has opened up the world to her. English speakers are alone in this regard: we really have no need to learn another language, ours has a global currency.